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Nutrition tips for kids on cancer treatment

Meal times can become stressful during treatment, for children and parents.

Well all know that nutrition plays a huge part in a child’s overall health and wellbeing but food often becomes a stressful part of daily life during cancer treatment.

It’s can be hard to balance their nutritional needs, the effects of chemo on taste and digestion, and wanting your child who is going through hard treatment to be happy. On top of other stresses, it can feel overwhelming when you just want you child to eat something.

Here are some tips that might help finding the right balance for you and your family.

If you’re concerned about your child’s nutritional needs, talk to your treating team.

Your support network is there to support you! Talk to other parents on the ward, your own parents and friends, and the hospital team or us at Redkite.

Other parents are likely facing the same challenges and they might have some tricks that have worked for their child. It’s also nice to talk to know you’re not alone and to talk to someone who gets it.

It’s important to remember that each child with cancer has their own nutrition needs, and some the things that work for children may not work for your child. It can take time to figure out what’s best for you and your family.

Talk to your child’s health care team any time you have concerns about how much your child has been eating or drinking. Your doctor, nurse, dietitian can work with you to figure out your child’s needs and come up with an eating plan.

Some children can be picky eaters at the best of times. During treatment, children might start refusing more food, even the ones you used to be able to rely on – and with good reason.

Chemotherapy can damage tastes buds during treatment, and it might take some time before taste returns to normal after treatment.

There’s are different ways tastebuds can be affected by treatment. These tips can help depending on your child’s experience,

A common things kids say is that the texture of food feels rough or like cardboard.

Treatment can make food taste bitter or metallic for some children. You can offer moist fruits like berries or melon and small sips of flavoured drinks. This can also be helpful if your child is experience a dry mouth.

If you child is struggling with a metallic taste, you can also try swapping your meatal cutlery with plastic, and use plastic or glass plates, bowls and cups.

If your child says their food is boring you can literally spice it up with fresh herbs, honey or soy.

If they say their food tastes too strong, you could try offering very simple food such as crackers, plain pasta or cereal.

If food is tasting too salty, you can try less salty alternatives to your child’s favourites. You can swap cheese slices and tasty cheese for mozarella, ricotta or cream chese. Instead of ham or salmi, you can try plain roast meat.

Radiotherapy, chemotherapy and painkillers can all cause a dry mouth which can be uncomfortable or

Soft foods with sauces or creamy textures such as custards and gravies can help, and cut out any dry or chewy foods like bread and chocolate.

Small sips of cool drinks will help moisten your child’s mouth. Crushed ice, ice-lollies, or flavoured ice cubes to suck can also help. This can also help if your child has mouth ulcers or oral mucositis.

Many children on cancer treatment have higher than normal calorie and protein needs. But just when you need to be making sure they are eating, your child’s tastebuds can change and they’re feeling nauseous.

Meat can be a food that many kids are sensitive too, but there are other alternatives protein sources. You can try nuts, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, eggs, baked beans, cheese and other dairy foods.

You could try protein-rich snacks like carrots with hummus, apple pieces with peanut butter, or a milkshake made from protein-fortified milk with icecream. Adding extra eggs or egg whites to custard, puddings, quiches, scrambled eggs, omelettes, pancake or French toast batter will increase the protein in these foods.

Carbohydrates are important in a high calorie diet. They’re also foods that most kids enjoy and you can make the flavours plain if your child is sensitive to overwhelming tastes, or add a lot of flavour if food is tasting bland. Think pasta, rice, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Now is not the time to cut the fat. Avoid diet or low-fat foods and instead keep an eye out for foods with labels such as full fat or “thick and creamy”.

Nausea is a big obstacle when it comes to eating during treatment. It can be hard to get your child to eat anything.

To reduce the cooking smell in your home, try preparing a day’s worth of meals beforehand and store them in a freezer or refrigerator for quick heating later.

Other things that may help is eating frequent small meals, trying bland foods like pasta and crackers, and testing if temperature makes your child’s nausea better or worse.

Chemotherapy can cause both constipation and diarrhoea which means you might have to track your child’s bowel movements.

If your child is experiencing constipation, you can try adding fibre to their diet with wholegrain breads and cereals, raw fruit and vegetables, dried fruits, beans and nuts. Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day if they can, eating at regular times, and where possible, increase their physical activity.

If your child has diarrhoea, it might help to cut out milk products, chocolate, chewing gum, cooked dried beans, very hot or very cold drinks, greasy/fatty/fried foods, and raw fruits and vegetables.

Time in hospital means a change of routine and the environment can be stressful. It can be overwhelming for anyone. It’s not uncommon to see a change in behaviour or mood. Children are still learning how to process their emotions. It might mean you’re having to manage difficult behaviours which is stressful for everyone involved.

If your child is feeling angry, upset or overwhelmed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is playing games. But, adding a bit of fun to mealtimes might actually work!

Fancy drinking straws, decorated cups and plates can help make meals more fun. Try cutting vegetables and sandwiches in various shapes with novelty cookie-cutters. Younger children might enjoy seeing their food arranged in a funny face on their plate or making a game out of what to eat first.

If they like to cook, get your child to help decorate a pizza or some biscuits which they can snack on fresh or ask for their help making a smoothie or milkshake.

Going out to a restaurant might be not be possible right now, but for some mealtime fun try creating a pretend restaurant at home! You or your children can be the waiter or you could have a picnic on your lounge room floor.

If they are well enough, inviting a friend over to join in!

Go easy on yourself and remember that it’s okay to be flexible and cut corners while your child is in hospital. It won’t cause any harm if you serve breakfast cereal for dinner or pasta for breakfast if it makes everyone feel happy and calm.

At the end of the day, all you can do is try your best. And remember, always speak with your treating team about your child’s specific nutrition needs or any concerns that you have – that’s what they’re there for.

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